Washing the Feet of Women

Another bit of information has come to us from Rome:

The Congregation for Divine Worship is now working on a document clarifying that the feet of women as well as men may be washed – this at the request of the “highest levels” of the church.

As you may recall, Pope Francis has caused quite a stir in recent years by washing the feet of women during the Holy Thursday Mandatum. The Pope’s actions were so sensational that the Liturgy Secretary of England and Wales reminded parishes that this practice was prohibited. He even went so far as to say: “It is precisely because the papal liturgy is a distinct reality in itself, that local churches [cannot] call on its precedent to dispense themselves from norms that apply to the whole Church.”

Many parishes in the United States and Europe have taken to washing the feet of women as well as men during their Holy Thursday services. Some bishops have cracked down on the practice, such as Bishop Morlino of Madison, while others have turned a blind eye. It will be interesting to see if this rumored directive will make it out of the CDW before Holy Thursday this year. Only time will tell.


  1. It is high time that the CDW chime in on this if indeed Francis wishes to change the law (which indubitably restricts the rite to males) instead of simply dispensing himself from it every year. He has left the conscientious in a tough spot by setting an example contrary to his “own” (as supreme legislator) prescriptions.

  2. The law is contrary to the widespread practice in countless parishes and dioceses over many decades. Yes, Jesus washed the feet of his apostles. Yes, all the apostles were men. But when he told them, “As I have done, so should you do”, he was providing a deeper insight into his command to “love one another as I have loved you”. The latter is applicable to all disciples and not just to male disciples. The restriction to men has to do, in my view, with the fact that the lawmakers are all men and all clerics. While the sacraments are surely rooted in the authority and life of Christ himself, the canonical proscriptions surrounding the sacraments are the work of fallible human beings and thus subject to modification.

  3. To second Aaron – regardless of where one stands on this discussion, an official clarification would be quite helpful.

  4. I am also glad that this issue may soon be addressed in a more direct manner. I personally have no problem with the washing of the feet of women at this liturgy ( although it is against the current rubric, which cannot just be dismissed). The reason against washing the feet of women because this is some sort of symbol of ordination or commissioning seems lacking. But I do pose another thought … Could this debate be more about times and culture than man or woman? Until recently, the thought of a man washing/touching the foot of a woman, not his wife, would have been deemed inappropriate. This is a very intimate action, or at least until the last decade or so, it was considered such (ask your grandparents or a married man).

    Was the reason for limiting this practice to males in the first place more to do with the intimate nature of this action, rather than an “attack on women” or a men’s club thing? I do not know the answer.

    As a priest, I would have no problem with washing the feet of women if allowed by the Church. My comment is more of seeking the reason for the rubric in the first place, not saying whether the practice is good or not.

    1. @Fr. Nile Gross – comment #5:
      Earlier this year a Muslim coworker and I were discussing various things religious and in the course of the conversation I mentioned Pope Francis washing the feet of women and the controversy related to it. She said that for a Muslim that would be a very inappropriate thing to do – that touching a woman’s feet is a very personal and private thing reserved to her husband.

      I know this is not directly related, but at least in Muslim circles right now there would still be issued about the “intimate nature of this action.” Perhaps it was that way more generally before?

  5. Long overdue. To divide the Church over this argument year after year in the middle of our holiest days is a scandal.

  6. View from the pew:
    – The USCCB has for local churches in the United States varied the rite sufficiently to allow for the washing of feet of either men or women by either men or women: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/triduum/holy-thursday-mandatum.cfm

    – It seems that linking the mandatum to ordination, and thus reserving the rite to men, is an innovation.

    – Jesus served his disciples without regard to gender as too we should as foot washing on Holy Thursday teaches and reminds.

    1. @Charles Jordan – comment #7:

      It seems that linking the mandatum to ordination, and thus reserving the rite to men, is an innovation.

      I am not sure about what the historical ordering of the differing ideas of what the foot washing symbolises is – I suspect they have both been around for a while and hence the confusion in the rubric.

      However, from the point of view of what is to be preferred, the best place to do a link to ordination would be a Bishop washing the feet of his priests in his Cathedral liturgy. To impose that conception on a priest and his lay parishioners, would seem to confuse the matter more than is helpful.

      So I think both conceptions can continue, but just in the different settings.

  7. Excellent news. The lack of respect of our agreed and shared rules is corrosive to our shared communion, as well as more generally to the links between our beliefs and practices.

    Thus, if the Pope wants to change to rules (which on this question is undoubtedly his right, and arguably desirable), it is much better to actually change the rules instead of just ignoring them.

    It also shows much more respect to the consciences of those who, rightly, feel morally bound to follow the rules as they stand.

  8. While I can understand people’s reasoning on both sides of this discussion, I think people forget that democratic politics and majority rule do not apply to the Church. The Church does not have to base its decisions about theology and praxis on what the majority of Catholics thinks is fair or scandalous or logical or prudent.

    At some point, we all have to admit that even though we don’t like every decision that is made, our Bishops and hierarchy have studied theology for their entire lifetimes and most of us have not. They have more knowledge and prudential judgment about some things than we do. Put another way, we don’t control new drug or medical procedure approval by majority vote. We have groups of professionally trained, certified, and degreed doctors and researchers who know pharmaceuticals and procedures in great detail to consult on and make those decisions. For the most part, we trust their level of expertise and knowledge because we don’t have the time and training to address that level of complexity. On a smaller scale, we have our family physicians who provide a similar role for similar reasons. In the vast majority of situations, we don’t second-guess his or her decisions about our care. So why do we feel that theological decisions should be made based on what the majority feels is right, be that right for us as individuals or our parish or our diocese or for the whole Church? Why do we feel that we know better than the Church does on matters of orthopraxy?

    I don’t think it’s inherently wrong to say to the Church, “I question whether or not that decision is the right one…” However, in all fairness and humility, I always feel compelled to add “…but you know much more on this topic than I do.” Call me a “tool”, but as a society we have become too enamored with individualism and personal freedom, such that collective thought and action, even for Catholics, is exceedingly difficult.

  9. The Mandatum as a sign of ordination is more fitting in the Chrism Mass. The Mandatum as a sign of the universal call to discipleship can be retained in the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper and included in other rituals.

  10. Original Article:….this at the request of the “highest levels” of the church….

    Different “highest levels” from those that blocked the Marini appointment? 😉

  11. Sometimes, I wonder if it would be good to go back to a version of the pre-Pian Mandatum, outside the context of the Mass, that could provide for more variation – in terms of number, sex, etc. – and separate it from the whole ordination debate.

  12. I agree with Fr. Mike Gross (#5). Sometimes rules that appear “anti” are actually “pro” and for our own good, even though at first glance, it doesn’t seem so. Even though our culture today is focused on gender equality (to a fault, IMO), it isn’t necessarily appropriate – in some parts of the world more than others – for women to be baring their feet in public and being touched by men who are not their husbands. Maybe the rule is a matter of propriety rather than inequality.

  13. I really hope that the above statement was just a simplification by someone not speaking in a legal way. Obviously the CDW cannot issue a document “clarifying that the feet of women as well as men may be washed.” The existing law is clear and was “clarified” again with the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal. What is needed is not a “clarification” but a “derogation,” a change in the law. The CDW is not competent to make such a change.

    The “highest levels” would require the action of the Supreme Legislator himself to change the current law. His past practice seems to indicate that he would be willing to do this. So, either the Holy Father needs to issue a motu proprio himself with the derogation, or he needs to approve any instruction coming from CDW with the required “in forma specifica” approval to make such an instruction law.

    For the sake of everyone, (especially canon lawyers who would have to explain this), I most fervently pray that we will not get an instruction, a non-legislative document, from the CDW “clarifying” that women’s feet can be washed. Such an instruction without the “in forma specifica” approval of the Holy Father would change nothing and actually make the confusion worse.

  14. Fr. Shawn P. Tunink : I really hope that the above statement was just a simplification by someone not speaking in a legal way. Obviously the CDW cannot issue a document “clarifying that the feet of women as well as men may be washed.”

    This was also my initial thought, but I suspect the Curia will not fulfill our hope. Not even the PCLT bothers to cross their canonical Ts nowadays – just consider how Card. Coccopalmerio responded to American inquiries about diaconal continence with a letter (an instrument of undefined legal weight), not an authoritative interpretation from his Council.

  15. I’m of two minds about all this.

    On the one hand, I’m wary of our Anglo-Saxon desire to have the law regulate all things and be followed by everyone in all cases. That is foreign to the cultural context in which the Roman rite came into being and developed across the centuries. To be blunt, it’s not very Catholic – though its proponents seem to think that, in their obedience to Rome, they’re being truly Catholic by operating out of a typically American mindset.

    On the other hand, if a clarification brings resolution to the issue and brings about peace, that is a good thing. So I will welcome this document when it comes.


  16. If true, this will result in the discontinuance of the relatively recent innovation of washing of feet during the Mass of the Last Supper, which is optional.

  17. It’s about time – and long overdue! However, I find the proposed CDW action and the preoccupation with the “right” juridical wording to remove the sexism in this rite very disconcerting. Of course, with the re-centralization and undercutting of the responsibilities of bishops’ conferences over the past 40+ years (regarding liturgy regulation) – it’s not surprising that we have to resort to these overly official pronouncements. What has been encouraging over the past 40 years at many parishes (of my experience) was the exercise of the moral principle of EPIKEIA on the part of local pastors who were washing the feet of both men & women (without making a big deal about doing this – and without formally seeking the permission of the local ordinary). Thank God for the precedent-setting action of Pope Francis in this regard a few years ago! With other major crises facing the Catholic Church in recent decades – such as the continuing loss of adherents, especially resulting from the hierarchy’s declining credibility from the mishandled abuse crisis & the irrelevance of much church teaching (and/or it’s presentation) on sexuality & embodiment issues – we shouldn’t have to devote so much time & energy to determining who can/cannot have their feet washed, or who may/may not purify communion vessels, or the CDW micro-managing the translation style of our liturgical texts. I pray the upcoming Synod will realize Pope Francis’ intended vision – not only for marriage & family issues – but that it will also initiate “unintended (beneficial) consequences” in other areas in the life of the church needing attention.

  18. My Anglo-Catholic parish priest allowed the washing of women’s feet back in the 1960’s. Why is it taking so long for some to catch up?

  19. I am sure earlier comments about it being a matter of propriety are correct, but then it should be decided at a local level, and there was no need continued bans in the US and UK.

    I am currently living in a non-European culture, and I suspect that here attitudes will vary between regions, ethnic groups and even parishes.

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